In this weird presidential campaign, almost everything has turned out opposite from what pollsters and pundits predicted. Even Super Tuesday proved not-so-super, and things are still not quite settled in either party’s race.
The election was supposed to be about a shaky Iraq. But after the successful surge and the recent economic downturn in the U.S., candidates now talk more about mortgages and illegal immigration than chaos in Baghdad.
John McCain was said to be finished by July. Then he was back again as a contender by January and is a supposed sure thing in February.
Barack Obama was at first just going to be a runner-up; frontrunner Hillary Clinton once worried more about the fall Republican nominee. Then, after the unexpected Obama victory in Iowa, his surging poll numbers assured us that Hillary was toast in New Hampshire. But she suddenly came back there, and also won in Michigan and Nevada — but that was all before Obama resurged in February.
Then there was the topsy-turvy history of Rudy Giuliani — a supposed insurmountable lead turned into an unexpected implosion. Not long ago Fred Thompson was also hyped — only to crash and burn. And who knows the status of Mike Huckabee?
Conservatives are irate at McCain — especially over his past stances on taxes and immigration and his sometime alliances with Democrats — and some of them promise to sit out the general election if he gets the Republican nomination.
Meanwhile, some Democrats repulsed by the Clintons promise to vote for McCain if Clinton gets her party’s nomination. And a few angry voters of both parties claim that they like nice-guy Obama better than either of the other likely nominees.
What is causing these wild swings among jittery and fickle voters?
First, we are in the middle of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are still fighting against radical Islamic terrorists on other fronts. Trillions in U.S. dollars are held abroad by rivals and belligerents. The economy is slowing. Energy prices are sky-high.
But for most, the medicine is as scary as the disease: Should we send more troops to finish the job overseas, or are there too many abroad already? Should we prime the economy to prevent recession? Or are stimulus plans unrealistic now that we are already running federal deficits and piling up debt?
Second, without a single administration incumbent in the running, both the Republican and Democratic races are especially volatile. In contrast, in every other presidential race after 1952, either an incumbent president or the sitting vice president has run in the fall election.
But now there is no status quo. Instead, a war has broken out within each party.
Bill Clinton is no longer a senior statesman, but has devolved into a rank partisan, more a liability than a help to his wife. President Bush hasn’t endorsed any Republican. He has a low approval rating, and has had issues with both McCain and Mitt Romney.
The current leaders — John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama — are all U.S. senators — but we haven’t had a sitting senator win the presidency in nearly a half-century, not since John Kennedy in 1960.
The Democratic nominee for the first time in election history will either be a woman or an African-American. Sons have followed their fathers to the presidency, but never a wife after her husband. Former presidents have ended up in Congress or the Supreme Court, but we’ve never contemplated one back in the White House as the First Gentleman.
Clinton and Obama are not the only trailblazers. If McCain wins, he will be the oldest man to assume the presidency. Romney is the first Mormon presidential contender with a real chance at the nomination.
Now that Super Tuesday is over, here’s what we are left with. A surviving Hillary Clinton can’t muzzle Bill, whose name got her the lead and whose narcissism has nearly squandered it. No one can cite anything specific that the still-surging Obama has done or will do. And conservatives are supposed to forgive Romney for once taking some liberal stances to win in liberal Massachusetts, but to damn McCain for doing the same thing when he didn’t have to in conservative Arizona.
In this crazy year, the election may finally come down to how many Democrats — scared that they don’t know enough about Obama, or know too much about the Clintons — will vote for a veteran pro like McCain. Or, on the flip side, how many “true” conservatives will stay home in November to ensure that a liberal wins the White House just to prove their purity.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, most recently, of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.
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